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Penrose’s idea of the role of self-conception in the development of the firm is basically a matter of meaning creation. This is captured in new cultural theory, which as demonstrated is now just being introduced into business history. I will be applying a concept of culture formulated by anthropologist Clifford Geertz. He defines it as follows:

The concept of culture I espouse … is essentially a semiotic one.

Believing … that man is an animal suspended in webs of significance he himself has spun, I take culture to be those webs, and the analysis of it to be therefore not an experimental science in search of law but an interpretative one in search of meaning.1

The central point is the searching for meaning. Geertz captures how the individual actor makes sense of existence by a process based on a continuous interplay between the interpretation of a specific situation and the context surrounding it. This constant interpretation (the spinning of webs) is closely linked to dynamics of change and development as every action is based on the meaning constructed. In this lies a logic of action new to the field of business history, as Lipartito notes:

The logic of action in history was clear – individuals always understood and pursued their self-interest, and the self-interested actions of individuals constituted society. Business historians followed a similar logic, even though their unit of analysis was the organization more than the individual… These positions were strikingly different than those being developed by historians under the influence of cultural theory. Culturalists saw all aspects of human thought and behavior as contingent and variable.2

Penrose notes the same subjectivity of action and speculates how to find acceptable assumptions concerning why companies act the way they do.3Geertz’s assumption is that every act is based on and can be explained by the meaning created in the situation, which he exemplifies by referencing the history of the many meanings of a wink.4

I will dwell shortly on two main points of the cultural theory of Geertz before turning to the analytical tools offered by it. The two points represent the main arguments why the ideas he offers are particularly well suited for my purpose of making an historical analysis focused on development over time. One is the social nature of meaning and the implications this has for analysis. The other is the matter of how change may be understood, which is important in order to study development.

The social nature of meaning

Organizational theorist Barbara Czarniawska notes that one use of the word social is simply to point to the opposite of being alone.5 Geertz continually stresses the shared nature of meaning as constructed by the actor in interplay with the context of the specific situation. This by extension gives social nature to actions (he uses the term social action),6 which is a position that has been called the depsychologyzation of culture.7 In this Geertz is opposing a more subjective view of culture drawing on psychology.8 For example American anthropologist Ward Goodenough claims that “culture [is] in the minds and hearts of men… [It is] whatever … one has to know or believe in order to operate in a manner acceptable to its members.”9 Here the object of anthropology is a search for a mental code or key to understanding culture (and maybe even pass for a native).10 Geertz’s claim, on the other hand, that culture exists in a social setting, has a very practical analytical consequence as it moves the study of meaning away from the mental sphere, which is at best very difficult to access, and into a shared sphere, where it can be studied. This is among the main reasons why Geertz’s concept of culture has been widely used. The point has been particularly appreciated in social and cultural history, where the gap in time between the researcher and the culture studied most often marks a further hindrance of knowing the heart or mind of the actor(s) and where actions can be difficult to map out.11

Earlier, when discussing the considerations of Penrose regarding the company’s self-conception and the reservations she had about including such aspects in analysis, I mentioned her view of conception as something particularly private and inaccessible.

Geertz however makes it clear that meaning creation is not a psychological process but rather takes place in a social/shared setting, and he offers concrete tools for studying it.

Change and Geertz’ concept of culture

Because of an insistent focus on a single situation or a very small series of situations in his analyses, Geertz has been criticized for producing an understanding of meaning creation that is too static.12 Though the depsychologization of culture has been appreciated in the field of history, it does on the other hand seem most interesting to many historians to ask questions concerning some form of development through time and not just a single event or situation. In any case change is the specific focus for me.

At first glance the thick descriptions and interpretations of a single situation so distinctive in Geertz’s writing depict the cultural constructs under scrutiny as stable and resistant to change. However, the situations he focuses on almost always captures a moment, where these constructs are being challenged often by external pressure.13 Change, it could be argued, is at the center of his analysis then.14 Also he stresses the importance of historical context, the human need to narrate the past into meaningful entities and the importance of a firm understanding of stable elements in a culture for understanding change.15 Microhistory (or at least parts of it) has applied Geertz’s cultural concept for analysis of processes of (often social or political) change.16 The focused analysis offered through Geertz’s cultural concept provides possibilities for understanding such processes, because it ties meaning and action together. But as Geertz notes this (a messy reliance on human cognition) will of course leave the anthropologist (or historian) with an image of change much less organized than often preferred. “It is not history one is faced with … but a

confusion of histories … There is order in it all of some sort, but it is the order of a squall or a street market,” he notes.17

Thick Description and narratives

Geertz proposes thick description as a way of doing analysis of meaning construction.

Often thick description is merely seen as another way of proposing a detailed, in-depth, and focused analysis; this however is not all there is to it. In his definition of culture Geertz speaks of cultural analysis as being an interpretive science in search of meaning.

He elaborates on this by saying: “It is explication I am after, construing social expressions on their surface enigmatical.”18 This explication or unfolding of social expressions is done through thick description. Geertz has borrowed the notion from British philosopher Gilbert Ryle and exemplifies it by Ryle’s story about the multiple meanings of a wink already mentioned. His point is that each wink gains meaning from the interaction between the specific performance of it and the context of that performance.19

The interrelation between the specific situation, the context, and the meaning constructed is mirrored in a duality in Geertz’s analyses between long descriptive passages dealing with the situation and the context of it and passages in which the construction of meaning in the situation is interpreted. Geertz makes it clear, though, that the descriptive parts of the analysis despite their style are also part of the interpretation as it represents the researcher’s reading of the situation.20 Also the interpretation starts long before the pen touches the paper (or the fingers the keyboard) and the researcher is thus communicating a distilled interpretation.21

Working as an anthropologist Geertz relies on ethnographic data collected in field studies through participatory observation, where he focuses on actions and interpret meaning from these. However he notes that interpreting action can be compared to analyzing text,22 and he is attentive to what he describes as a human need to narrate the past into sensible

entities.23 The same is noted by Carr who claims that any experience is given a narrative form by the actor in order to make sense of it, so it may be operationalized in the present;

that is used as grounds for action.24 This - the performativity of narratives – guides what can and can’t be done in a situation by rendering some actions more meaningful than others. In this way meaning creation, action, and narratives are connected, and it is through the same mechanism inertia and blind spots can be created as already discussed.

By nature of the past it is not possible to study situations and actions as they play out—

like an anthropologist. The historian is confined to whatever traces are left over from the past. From the traces of the past meaning creations may be interpreted and actions understood by doing narrative analyses. The sources business historians may draw on in such an analysis can be constituted by a large number of different materials all expressing narrative forms. Narratives create order, assign causality, and construct meaning.25 They are stable over time and it is by their stability that blind spots and inertia may be created.26 To sum up: A thick-description of the meaning constructed in the company can be done by analyzing the company’s use of narratives. Thus, the company’s subjective grounds for making decisions and acting may be analyzed as part of a history of the growth of the company.

The case of Fiberline

By now it should be clear that I have chosen to do a case study of Fiberline and as such it seems a good idea to offer both some considerations about what – if any – general knowledge can be gained from this as well as some arguments why I have chosen Fiberline. As I am claiming that narratives are used to establish meaning, I should probably start by telling my story, about how I came to know Fiberline in the first place (fundamental to my choice of using the company as a case of course). My introduction to Fiberline was mostly due to coincidence and my own sense of beauty (or simple

curiosity). Some years back I was invited to visit the company by a colleague. I accepted the invitation, as I wanted a closer look at the company’s very stunning buildings. Until then I had only seen these from the outside passing by on my way to work. The inside proved equally impressive, and the people I met were welcoming. It isn’t often that historians or other researchers are allowed to romper about a company’s archive with as much freedom as I was given in Fiberline. To this it also needs to be added that I have been working with the history of Fiberline as an independent researcher and have never been asked or commissioned to write for the company.27

Through her case study of Hercules, Penrose wishes to discuss general patterns of firm growth, and the same can be said for my use of Fiberline. In the manner of Geertz, the intention of my analysis is to give actuality to the concept of firm growth. He explains the value of thick description as a contribution to scientific debate in general as follows:

The important thing about the anthropologist’s findings is their complex specificness, their circumstantiality. It is with the kind of material produced by long-term, mainly … qualitative, … and almost obsessively fine-comb field study in confined contexts that the mega-concepts with which contemporary social science is afflicted … can be given the sort of sensible actuality that makes it possible to think … realistically and concretely about them …28

The aim is to draw large conclusions from small, but very densely textured facts; to support broad assertions about the role of culture in the construction of collective life by engaging them exactly with complex specifics.29

Empirical material and the use of it

The archival material of Fiberline is rich, which is an advantage that is not to be underestimated, least of all by the historian. Through the meticulous effort of Dorthe Thorning, the archive of the company is large and well organized. Amongst many other

documents she has kept almost every piece of written information ever to pass between members of the board and the management of the company including a large number of lengthy reports from the management concerning the everyday running of the company.

Apart from being uncommon30 (perhaps especially considering the relatively small size of Fiberline) this rich archival material is a precondition for doing historical analysis in the depth and detail intended here.

Like many other growing companies Fiberline has seen a number of moves between offices, into new office space and even a move of the entire company. In the bustle of growth, archives are often lost or reduced, but at Fiberline they have been kept and cared for. I have thus been spared the frustrating job of tracking down deserted warehouses or almost forgotten basements in the hunt for useful materials. All archival material as well as all interviews, my notes from these, and the transcripts of the two most extensive interviews are in Danish. I have translated every passage I quote into English. In the analysis I distinguish between three main types of sources, which I will use to different ends: the material from board and management, interviews and contextual material.

The material from board and management

Through the first years Fiberline was owned by a handful of people. Henrik Thorning, the founder and manager, owned a part, and he and the other owners formed the board. In 1993 Henrik Thorning became the sole owner of the company. Since then the board members have consisted of different professionals, paid for their effort and functioning as an advisory board. The board meets every three months, and prior to each meeting Henrik Thorning, assisted by Dorthe Thorning, writes up a report about the daily dealings and future plans of the company. These reports are long (up to 10 typed pages) and often structured by topic such as sales, marketing, administration, production, or procurement.

Sometimes new topics are included for example strategy. In the archive the report has

been filed alongside a copy of the invitation to the board meeting (which contains an agenda for the meeting) and the minutes of the meeting the report was written for.

In general the records of board meetings are structured around the agenda of the meeting.

Often the report from management is just the first order of business followed by others.

Henrik Thorning would typically start a meeting by talking the board through the report.

The board would comment and then attention would turn to the other points on the agenda. During the first years of the company’s history, these would often concern the financial situation of the company or dealings with important customers. Often they circle back to the topics in the report and discussion continues. Henrik Thorning frequently took notes of the meetings and wrote the minutes. Often (especially after 1990) Dorthe Thorning would attend the meetings and write the minutes. But there were also periods where other members of the board would write them, examples are Niels Jørgen Kovstrup (a co-owner who also worked on and off at Fiberline through some years) or Jørn Hansen (member of the board and lawyer for the co-owner Dukadan).

The reports from management, the minutes from the meetings, along with a number of letters that have passed between members of the board and the company (often concerning some acute problem) constitute a sort of ongoing dialog. These texts express

“the acute nature of lived experience” as noted by Musacchio Adorisio31 and in them the established narratives of the company are often drawn on or referenced to make sense of events. However just as often in this form of texts the narratives used by board and management to make sense of a specific situation is implicit; they are shared by all and taken for granted. In these cases I will seek to draw in other sources in which the narratives are more explicitly used. This could for example be the many strategy documents made by the company and other forms of text, like articles, in which mainly Henrik Thorning tells about the company.

The advantage of the written strategy plans are that they have been worked through and discussed as a piece of concrete text between board and management. The strategy plans were formulated through a number of board meetings, in which the members discussed the topic at length finally agreeing on a strategy that was then written up and signed by the board. The style of such plans (and other similar texts I will draw in to my analysis) stands out compared to the material from the board meetings by more clear expression of narratives. Meaning is condensed in these texts and they can deliver good insights into the self-conception and image of context of the company. As Fiberline grew and the organization was formalized, the written strategies also became more extensive. Around the middle of the 1990s the strategies would be worked out by the leadership group and then presented to the board that would approve and sign it.


I have conducted a number of interviews that may be used for the analysis of Fiberline’s history. A part of these are long unstructured interviews with Dorthe and Henrik Thorning together. Here I would simply ask them to tell me the history about themselves and the company. After these I conducted a number of shorter interviews with Henrik Thorning.

These were more structured, and I would normally send him an e-mail with questions in advance. The questions were on specific elements in the archival material. I would for example ask how a new member of the board had been chosen or ask him to explain a particular development in the production or a quality problem discussed. I have used these short interviews to support descriptive elements in my analysis, and I have used interviews with members of the management group in the same way, for example with vice president Stig Krogh Pedersen. The long interviews where Dorthe and Henrik Thorning tell their history about Fiberline (and also their upbringing) are different. They are Dorthe and Henrik Thorning’s present sense of the history of Fiberline. During my

analysis I will use parts of these interviews to illustrate how narratives of the past live on through to today.

Contextual material

I will be focusing on the context as it made sense to and was narrated by Fiberline in the documents from board and management, strategic plans, etc. Individuals and companies alike may draw on larger narratives in constructing meaning. These may for example be narratives of national community as shown by Mordhorst in his studies of the Danish dairy company Arla.32 In the case of Fiberline these are, for example, shared ideas about the entrepreneur or shared narratives of the plastic industry, for example about the competitive nature of the industry. To understand how the world made sense to and was narrated by the Danish plastic industry, I will draw on materials from the Danish Plastic Industry organization representing its members in the industry. Mostly I will draw on the monthly magazine of the organization, which contained lively discussions between members and the management of the organization on various topics relevant to the industry. Henrik Thorning was active in these discussions, and Fiberline was from the beginning a member of the plastic industry organization and later also of the section for composite industry established as part of the Danish plastic industry organization.

As noted Penrose points to the context specificity of firm development by noting that the growth of every company is a unique process in historical time.33 Through the analysis I will discuss the context of Fiberline more generally in order to facilitate my understanding of Fiberline’s image of environment. In The Theory of the Growth of the Firm, focus falls primarily on the market context of the firm.34 But as demonstrated by McGovern and McLean in their study of firm growth, many institutions of the surrounding world can influence the company by inducing it to act in one way rather than another.35

I have sought to overview the Danish plastic industry by gathering and drawing on material from a long line of publications from both the Danish and European industry organizations; e.g. journals and conference proceedings. I have also looked for statistical material on the development of the plastic industry. This has been tricky, however, as the composite plastic manufactures like Fiberline are sometimes registered as part of the glass manufacturing industry. At other times they are categorized as part of the conventional plastic industry, the development of which is also closer to that of the composite plastic manufactures. This is my focus, therefore, in order to see the development of Fiberline as part of a relevant industry and its development.

Focus and structure of the analysis

In my analysis I will be covering a period of roughly 25 years of the company’s history, from its founding in 1979 to 2004. Geertz notes that thick description really only stops when the attention of the ethnographer, exhausted by the intense focus of the analysis, is drawn to new things.36 Other considerations, however, also guide the matter of focusing the analysis. In my case an important argument for ending my analysis around 2004 is the practical consideration of my case company, who were most comfortable in granting me unhindered access to their archive knowing that I would not take my analysis too close to present day.

In the first chapter I will establish what I believe to be the basic narrative of Fiberline. It expresses the self-conception and image of context of the company at a fundamental level.

Constructed around the company’s founding, this basic narrative was continuously reconstructed throughout its history. In the second chapter of the analysis I will consider the context in which the basic narrative of Fiberline was formulated; I will focus especially on the prior knowledge and experience of Henrik Thorning to show how these influenced the establishment of the basic narrative. In the third chapter I will discuss the